Field Trip!

Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra

Throw a stone in a lake and watch the rings dance. They last a long time.

Ray Sommerfield threw a stone over fifty years ago.

Back in 1960 he loaded up nine of his students from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania and drove them off to hear a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

There wasn’t a school bus available, so he borrowed a hearse.

Yes, a hearse. Not the most elegant way to go to a concert, but it would do.

It seems that Mr. Sommerfield was a man of strong convictions. He thought his students, even though they lived in a small town, should have the opportunity to hear great music – live. Not everyone agreed with his teaching methods. They thought he was too rebellious – he didn’t follow the rules. Some thought he wasn’t really “teaching” at all.

But, inside that hearse on its way to Philadelphia was a boy named John, and, on this day in 1960, his life would change forever. He heard Eugene Ormandy conduct a concert of Tchaikovsky: the Serenade for Strings, the Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern, and the Pathetique Symphony.

“It was the strings during the opening of the Sixth Symphony that got me,” John said. “I can still see the movement of the violins. The sound was so beautiful. I had no idea such a thing existed. After that, I was hooked.”

I met John, now an architect in New York, sitting next to me at the bar during a Sunday Brunch at the Red Rooster in Harlem. In the background Belinda Munro, a lovely singer from Toronto whose smile alone could stop a room, treated all of us to a playlist ranging from gospels to the Beatles. As we had our meal, John and I discussed music.

I mentioned a Baroque program that I had recently conducted in Santo Domingo that included one of Handel’s Concerto Grossi.

“Op. 6?”

“Wow! Are you a musician?”

“No. I just listen. What unknown Baroque composer should I know?” he inquired.

“Try Boyce,” I answered – to which he replied, “Yes, I have all of his symphonies. I love the trumpets in the Fifth.”

“Do you know Geminiani?”

“Of course.”


“I’ll check him out. I really would like to find some new Germans.”

“Let’s see,” I said, “Have you heard Graupner?”

“Yes, I love his music! By the way, do you know Aubert? I just discovered him.”

“I’ve heard of him,” I said, “but I haven’t listened to his music yet.”

“I also love the Romantic Era. I just heard Haitink lead the Bruckner Seventh with the Philharmonic. It was incredible. Were you there?”

Now, take a moment with me and step back from this conversation.

John is an architect who doesn’t play music. He just got hooked because fifty-two years ago, an English teacher thought there was something more to teach his students than just the next lesson in the textbook.

I think he just taught his lesson again.

How do you build an arts community? You decide to invite someone to a concert.

If there isn’t a bus, you take a hearse; you trust the Art to do the rest.

Throw a stone in a lake and watch the rings dance.

They last a long time.

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  1. Claudia cutler says

    Thank you for posting this. I am a dance teacher who helped form – with great music, dance and drama teachers- a Performing Arts school inside of a public school, here in New jersey.
    When the budget didn’t pass and things got bad, guess what was the first thing to go?APA
    The Performing Arts school brought life inside of those high school children lives, at my third year there, they all “loved” the ballet and danced to Bach music.

    I’m very sad and disappointed at our society and the way the Arts is viewed.

  2. Amanda says

    This reminds me a great deal of the humanities courses the students in high school were “forced” to take, which included art as well as music. All it takes is exposure to something to begin a life long interest in something that would have otherwise remained a mystery. Thanks to those humanities classes, I have fallen in love with architecture in a way I never thought possible. All it took was stepping out of a comfort zone to find a remarkable comfort zone in a different type of art. Music has always been my home, but I do like to visit other areas of art more frequently now.

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